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JDC Helps Eastern European Jews Use Returned Property for Self-sufficiency

June 8, 2004
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Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe are getting a hand at becoming self-sufficient thanks to a real estate loan program. The idea behind the Strategic European Loan Fund, or SELF, is to help communities maximize revenues from restituted property and then pump the money back into projects that benefit local Jewry.

Initial experiments with the program have proven so successful that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which introduced SELF, is now looking to develop the interest-free loan program all over the continent. Already, JDC has begun setting up seminars in different countries to provide community representatives with real estate know-how.

The JDC’s nominee for president, Ellen Heller, told JTA last week that an important aspect of a recent four-country mission by representatives of the JDC’s Eastern European committee was economic empowerment — “how we can assist communities to becoming self-suffi! cient.”

Jerry Spitzer, a JDC board member and property management consultant, said many communities face difficulties in deciding what to do with real estate that has been returned to the Jewish community recently, decades after their seizure by the Nazis during World War II.

“The fact that you have gotten a building can be a liability,” Spitzer said. “Unless you can turn it into an income-producing property, it is a drain because you have to insure it, maintain it.”

Local Jewish communities often find banks reticent to lend money for projects that have yet to show any income, he said. Through SELF, JDC provides both the financial assistance and technical knowledge to maximize revenues from the restituted properties.

Bu the JDC wants to see the revenues go to social service improvement projects for the Jewish community, Spitzer said.

“We are not going to tell them what are the priorities, but as long as it is something that is going back into the community,! ” he said.

The program already has gotten under way in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where the JDC lent the local Jewish community $45,000 to help convert a hospital returned under restitution laws into a hotel.

Fero Alexander, executive chairman of Slovakia’s Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities, said the SELF program had made the project possible.

“At that time, we could have gotten a loan from the banks here at 16 percent interest, which would have been impossible to pay back,” he said.

But as a result of SELF’s interest-free loan, the community already has paid back the bulk of the JDC money in about two years. Alexander said he hoped the scheme would benefit all of the country’s 11 official communities.

Alexander’s Czech counterpart, Tomas Kraus, also praised the JDC program, saying he hoped that smaller communities with few members, few properties and little income would use it to achieve self-sufficiency.

Meanwhile, the JDC is looking to collaborate with other Jewish organizations in developing the! program. Not long ago, the group announced that it was setting up a joint project in Bulgaria with the Britain-based World Jewish Relief.

“We think it is a global issue, not an American Jewish issue for Europe,” Spitzer said. “We are one people; this is a global village.”

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